Student Counselors Give Free Therapy to Troubled Children and Their Families

Times Staff Writer

Brenda Webster was upset about her daughter’s temper and poor grades. One morning last fall the 10-year-old refused to get ready for school and spat on her mother.

“I had to shut the door before I did something to hurt her,” Webster said. “I just didn’t know what to do.”

Fortunately for Webster, her daughter attends Marshall Elementary School in the Garvey School District. The district had just started a pilot program in which students studying for master’s degrees in counseling from Cal State L.A. provide free therapy to troubled children and their families.

Dubbed Mission Possible, the program aims at improving academic performance by reducing family problems, targeting children who are failing, hyperactive or who have high truancy rates.

Cal State L.A. students benefit by getting counseling experience in a school setting. They also conduct parental guidance workshops at the schools.

Therapy After Work

Since September, 25 university students have counseled 39 families in six schools, according to Marcel Soriano, director of pupil personnel services and district coordinator of the program. He is negotiating with Ingleside Hospital in Rosemead for space so parents can come for therapy after work hours.

Webster said that counseling sessions with student Tim Bruce had given her new skills in being a parent.

“When you’re growing up (it seems) your mother always knows what to do,” Webster said, adding that she now realizes that parenting skills do not come naturally. Using advice from Bruce, Webster said she now tries to think before losing her temper at her child.

Webster, who meets weekly for counseling sessions in the school library, said that for financial reasons she is unable to get professional help. Her daughter leaves her class an hour each week for the sessions.

“Ever since she started going to (Bruce) she’s gotten real mellow, even when he’s not there,” Webster said, adding that her daughter fights less often with classmates.

Families With Problems

Mission Possible is the brainchild of Brian Gerrard, coordinator of the marriage, family and child counseling program at Cal State L.A.

“We’re working with multiproblem families,” said Gerrard, with some households struggling with alcoholism, sexual or physical abuse or drug problems.

School counselors are not trained to intervene in family problems and many parents do not follow up on suggestions to seek professional therapy because of time and financial constraints, Gerrard said.

“We’re reaching families that otherwise would not receive treatment,” he said. “We’re more likely to make an impact on school success because we’re starting early. By secondary school, (the children) are firmly entrenched in gangs and who knows what, and the family ceases to have an influence.”

At the same time his students, who typically obtain counseling experience in either government or private agencies, learn to work with the school system.

Gerrard said counselors have a better chance of reaching a troubled child if they work within the child’s environment.

An important reason the Garvey district was selected as “a good laboratory to try out the project” was its diverse racial and socioeconomic mix, Gerrard said. Of the district’s 7,313 students, 54% are Latino and 39% Asian.

He noted that some Latinos and Asians are more reluctant to seek help because of a stronger stigma against therapy in their cultures.

Three years ago, as the coordinator of the marriage, family and child counseling program at the University of San Francisco, Gerrard started a similar program in 15 Catholic elementary schools that is still operating. The first formal evaluation of that program will be conducted in June.

He hopes to expand the program in the Garvey district by eventually supplying up to four interns for each of the district’s schools.

Practical Training

If results of an evaluation this summer are favorable, counseling students would provide therapy on a 10-month contract with the program, Gerrard said. Most of the students would be working toward the 3,000 hours of practical training required for state licenses in marriage, family and child counseling.

The district would help by overseeing the interns’ performance.

“Our dream is to provide such quality of supervision as to draw interns from other universities,” Soriano said.

Marshall Principal Marilyn Malmquist said she is “super pleased” with the program.

Some parents of the 10 to 15 students she recommends for professional counseling each year never seek help, but families are faithful about keeping their appointments with Bruce, she said. “They’re familiar and comfortable (meeting the counselor) in the school. It’s far less threatening,” she said.

Bruce said he has been gratified by the rapport he has been able to establish with the children because he is working in their environment.

“We’ve sat on the jungle gyms and talked. They’re much more open and realistic here than in a clinic, where they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing,” he said.

“I have kids that don’t like to write that write me their life stories,” said Bruce, who asks some children to draw if they can’t verbalize their feelings.

“They say there is nothing wrong in their lives, but they use blacks and very harsh colors,” he said.

Counseling students have also been assigned to the district’s two junior high schools.

Deeply Rooted Problems

“Parents think it’s up to the schools to worry about grades and make sure (the children) do what they’re supposed to do,” said Salome Dineros who interns at Garvey Intermediate School in Rosemead.

After 15 weeks of counseling, Dineros, who is also the coordinator of the college’s guidance clinic, has convinced two 13-year-olds that they ought to quit skipping school. She is now working on persuading them to improve their grades.

The parents of both youths had been separated.

“When something’s happening in the home, the kids take it out on academics to get attention,” Dineros said.

“The children’s problems are deeply rooted in the family problem,” echoed intern Phyllis Davidson, who counsels two boys disinterested in school work at Monterey Vista Elementary School in Monterey Park.

The single mothers of the 6-year-old and 9-year-old students have been in and out of jail for drug abuse, she said.

“Both (families) said they didn’t want to come back at first, but now the children are eager to see me,” she said.